Ronald Thwaites | Wrong side up
The cry of many farmers at Denbigh over the weekend was the difficulty we all experience: to secure credit for agricultural production.
In recent years, Jamaica has spent close to US$1 billion a year to buy animal feed and foodstuff, much of which we could produce for ourselves if we really set our minds to it. More than this, as Steve McDonald from Yaad Market in Toronto told us again, there are markets abroad worth vast millions in hard currency for Brand Jamaica products which we are forfeiting every year.
The world is waiting to pay us good money for sweet potatoes, hot pepper, coconut water and oil, honey and all manner of traditional and organic produce that we fall short in delivering. Shamefully, we can't even produce enough to feed our schoolchildren good yard food.
At Independence 55, our economy is wrong side up, and we are afraid to admit and correct it. We are spending more foreign exchange than we are earning without even realising it. This means that we have to borrow the shortfall or depend on others to give it to us. Our dollar will always be under pressure and our creditors always in control.
Some current economic data tell the story.
For a period earlier this year, we imported US$1.3 billion worth of goods and services while a paltry US$320 million was the value of our exports. And of the things we sourced from abroad, we spent some US$650 million buying petroleum products and motor vehicles.
How is this sustainable and who is noticing and prepared to take any action?
VEHICLE IMPORTS DOUBLED
In the last two or three years, we have doubled the number of motor vehicles coming to Jamaica each year. Every car costs foreign exchange to acquire and operate. How long do we think that the luck of low oil prices will hold out?
A representative of the used-car industry told us recently that financial institutions are "in a race to the bottom", offering 90 per cent loans for eight-year-old vehicles at interest rates lower than apply to any agricultural loan.
This situation eloquently tells of our misplaced national priorities.
To compound the wrong-side-up folly, I learn that about 40 per cent of incoming motor cars are for the taxi trade, much of it in the urban areas, run-jostling against the egregiously mismanaged JUTC, with the result that we same taxpayers have to subsidise that company to the tune of billions of dollars annually.
Never in 20 years of public life have I heard this impossible situation addressed by our leaders. Perhaps, we could continue to ignore the reality and just put up with the congestion and pollution if the nation was earning loads of foreign dollars from exported goods and services. But we are not, and our trade deficit is yawning.
And so the cry of the agriculture sector goes unheard. Financial institutions take large amounts of our savings, convert much of it to foreign money, and lend it back to us for our convenience and pleasure, but not sufficiently for our sustained profit.
An efficient, vastly expanded agriculture and agro-processing sector is the only foundation for full employment, lower crime and violence, higher retained tourism earnings, revived manufacture, wholesome nutrition and healthy balance of payments - all ingredients of real national independence.
This requires land, credit, education and technology. The present emphasis is on consumption and 'foreign mind'.
Our heads and our pockets are wrong side up. It lies within our power to begin a significant change by Independence 56.
- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.